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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 14:17 GMT
Gaza settlers hoping to stay put

James Rogers
BBC News, Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has plans to dismantle most of the 21 Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, where more than 7,500 Jews live among 1.3 million Palestinians. Our correspondent finds the residents of the Netzarim settlement dismayed and defiant.

Child at Netzarim settlement and Israeli soldiers
Gaza settlements are heavily fortified and guarded
The only way into Netzarim is by armoured bus. The driver - an assault rifle resting behind his seat - warns us to keep our heads down. The bullet-proof glass doesn't reach to the top of the windows.

Our convoy crosses into the Gaza Strip.

"I receive the news of incidents on my pager here from the security centre. There is almost no day that's clear of terror attacks on the buses here, on Netzarim," says Eran Sternberg, spokesman for the Jewish settlers in Gaza.

"Every moment it could happen. Every moment some missiles can hit the bus. Nobody can promise anything. Like every moment you can explode in Jerusalem by a suicide bomber."

That's what the settlers are keen to stress. They admit that living in Netzarim is dangerous, but they argue that every Israeli faces daily dangers. They see themselves as being on the front line in the defence of the Jewish state.

Lack of public support

Much of the world sees them as living illegally on land occupied in war. Israel disputes this, as, of course, do the settlers themselves.

Coming to Netzarim was a fulfilment of the Zionist dream. I believe that I'll be here for many years and the community will grow
Tammy Silberschein
Settler
Israeli public opinion doesn't offer as much support as the settlers would like. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Israelis would be happy to see them leave Gaza, as the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, recently proposed.

The people of Netzarim are both doubtful and dismayed.

"I don't believe that it's his true self," says 35 year old Tammy Silberschein, a mother of five. Mrs Silberschein, who used to live in the United States, came to Netzarim 8 years ago.

Netzarim bus
View of the Netzarim gate from the armoured bus that runs between Israel and the settlement
She doubts that she will ever be forced to leave. But she admits that she's worried by Mr Sharon's proposal.

"The things that he's said have already caused a lot of damage. It's boosted the morale of the Palestinians," she told me.

"It's given a lot of motivation to the terrorists to continue because they see that it pays off. I think that it's a terrible mistake, and a tragic mistake, to speak in the way that he's speaking."

Settler's former champion

There are an estimated 7,500 Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip, surrounded by more than a million Palestinians.

The land around Netzarim has been cleared of the Palestinian trees and houses which used to stand there. Palestinians entering the "security zone", for whatever reason, risk being shot at. The people living around Netzarim have grown to detest its presence. It is frequently attacked.

Netzarim settlement
Dismantling the settlements will cause massive upheaval for thousands
The settlements have been placed with military necessity in mind. Their locations were recommended by Mr Sharon himself, when he was in charge of the Israeli Army's southern command.

Mr Sharon has traditionally been seen by the settlers as a champion of their interests. He was last returned to office in an election forced when his Labour coalition partners walked out of government. One of the reasons they cited was the amount of funding for settlements when Israel was facing economic hardship.

Netzarim and the other settlements are heavily fortified. The Israeli Army won't give troop numbers, but they have gone up in the last three years.

A spokesman says only "that the number of attacks has largely increased, therefore troop deployment has increased."

It doesn't feel dangerous on a quiet morning. The neat rows of red and white houses could almost be in suburban America.

Then the call to prayer from a mosque in a nearby Palestinian refugee camp drifts over the settlement's concrete and razor wire perimeter, reminding you that Gaza is an almost exclusively Muslim and conservative place.

Mrs Silberschein gives her own faith as her inspiration. "Coming to Netzarim was a fulfilment of the Zionist dream," she declares proudly.

"I believe that I'll be here for many years and the community will grow."






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